Some of the Giants aren't sure what to make of their coach. Although Fassel has his supporters among the players, others profess not to understand him or his methods. Consider Fassel's playoff guarantee. "He was in a no-lose situation, because if we don't get to the playoffs, he gets fired," says defensive tackle Keith Hamilton. "We had lost two in a row, and when that happens, doubt starts creeping in. It meant a lot because he was saying we should follow him. But even if he didn't say it, he had some doubts about us, too."
Last season, following a 23-13 loss to the Washington Redskins, Armstead, a Pro Bowl linebacker, ripped the offense to the media. He claimed his statements were taken out of context, but Fassel still told him to keep his comments in-house. Armstead felt Fassel had been overly harsh in his criticism, and Armstead's bitterness carried into the new year. He refused to participate in the team's off-season program until Fassel called him in early February to apologize.
Says cornerback Phillippi Sparks, who left New York as a free agent after last season and signed with the Cowboys in August, "It's hard to figure out what kind of coach he is. I guess that's the way he wants it. One day he's cool. The next day something's wrong. And the day after that something's specifically wrong with you. I couldn't define him."
After the Giants fell behind the Lions 21-0 at halftime in that Nov. 19 game, they were taken aback by Fassel's declaration that they could not sit on the benches during the second half. He thought that they would stay more focused if they were standing and watching the action. New York closed to 28-14, but some Giants contended that by staying on their feet, they were too fatigued to complete the comeback. "I was tired when I came out of the game, and I wanted to sit down," Armstead says. "But as soon as I got over there, I would hear, 'Get off the damn bench!' "
No other game has been as significant to New York's season as that defeat by Detroit. It was the Giants' fourth loss against a playoff contender, and in each of those games the opponent jumped to a big lead: Washington led 16-0, the Tennessee Titans 21-0 and the St. Louis Rams 28-7. Fassel came up with the playoff guarantee while sitting in traffic on the way home after the Lions game. The next day he summoned his captains—Armstead, Brown, Collins, defensive end Michael Strahan and right guard Ron Stone—and told them he needed their support to turn around the team. He put a gag order on his coaching staff and ordered his players not to talk about one another with the media. In practice Fassel became even more detail-oriented, riding players over the smallest mistakes.
"He's down with the linebackers one minute, the offensive line the next, then over with the defensive line," says Brown. "He's all over the place making sure everything is done to his liking. His attitude has been that if he was going down, he wanted to know he was in control of everything."
Following the Detroit game, New York whipped the lousy Arizona Cardinals, slipped by the Redskins with the NFC East lead on the line and thumped the Pittsburgh Steelers, who still had playoff hopes.
Fassel's determination to unify the Giants paid off in their win over the Cowboys. After digging itself into a 13-0 half-time hole, New York turned the tables, forcing three turnovers and holding Dallas to 27 yards. It wasn't Fassel who rallied the Giants at intermission. Barber, whose 13-yard touchdown dash midway through the fourth quarter would give New York the lead, made a rare speech. "I told the offense that all year we had been told we can't do this or that, and we had proved people wrong," Barber said after the game. "The only thing we hadn't done was come back to win a game. So I said that we should go out and break down that criticism, too."
Added Armstead, "This is the kind of game we would've lost last year and probably at the beginning of this season, but as the season has gone on, we've learned to keep fighting together."
Fassel deserves the lion's share of the credit for that. He was walking through the locker room last Friday when Collins called him over. While watching television a few minutes earlier, the quarterback had seen the coach in a clip from the 1997 season. "You've put on some years since then," Collins told Fassel. "I barely recognized you."